Monday, September 25, 2017

Mathematical Platonist Universalism, consistency, and causal finitism

Mathematical Platonists say that sets and numbers exist. But there is a standard epistemological problem: How do we have epistemic access to the sets to the extent of knowing some of the axioms they satisfy? There is a solution to this epistemological problem, mathematical Platonist universalism (MPU): for any consistent collection of mathematical axioms, there are Platonic objects that satisfy these axioms. MPU looks to be a great solution to the epistemological problems surrounding mathematical Platonism. How did evolved creatures like us get lucky enough to have axioms of set theory or arithmetic that are actually true of the sets? It didn’t take much luck: As soon as we had consistent axioms, it was guaranteed that there would be a plurality of objects that satisfied them, and if the axioms fit with our “set intuitions”, we could call the members of any such plurality “sets” while if they fit with our “number intuitions”, we could call them “natural numbers”. And the difficult questions about whether things like the Axiom of Choice are true are also easily resolved: the Axiom of Choice is true of some pluralities of Platonic objects and is false of others, and unless we settle the matter by stipulation, no one of these pluralities is the sets. (The story here is somewhat similar to Joel Hamkins’ set theoretic multiverse, but I don’t know if Hamkins has the kind of far-reaching epistemological application in mind that I am thinking about.)

This story has a serious problem. It is surely only the consistent axioms that are satisfied by a plurality of objects. Axioms are consistent, by definition, provided that there is no proof of a contradiction from them. But proofs are themselves mathematical objects. In fact, we’ve learned from Goedel that proofs can be thought of as just numbers. (Just write your proof in ASCII, and encode it as a binary number.) Hence, a plurality of axioms is consistent if and only if there does not exist a number with a certain property, namely the property of encoding a proof of a contradiction from these axioms. But on MPU there is no unique plurality of mathematical objects deserving to be called “the numbers”. So now MPU faces a very serious problem. It said that any consistent plurality of axioms is true of some plurality of Platonic objects, and there are no privileged pluralities of “numbers” or “sets”. But consistency is itself defined by means of “the numbers”. And the old epistemological problems for Platonism resurface at this level. How do we have access to “the numbers” and the axioms they satisfy so as to have reason to think that the facts about consistency of axioms are as we think they are?

One could try making the same move again. There is no privileged notion of consistency. There are many notions of consistency, and for any axioms that are consistent with respect to any notion of consistency there exists a plurality of Platonic satisfiers. But now this literally threatens incoherence. But unless we specify some boundaries on the notion of consistency, this is going to literally let square circles into Platonic universalism. And if we specify the boundaries, then epistemological problems that MPU was trying to solve will come back.

At my dissertation defense, Robert Brandom offered a very clever suggestion for how to use my causal powers account of modality to account for provability: q can be proved from p provided that it is causally possible for someone to write down a proof of q from p. This can be used to account for consistency: axioms are consistent provided that it is not causally possible to write down a proof of a contradiction from them. There is a bit of a problem here, in that proofs must be finite strings of symbols, so one needs an account of the finite, and a plurality is finite if and only if its count is a natural number, and so this account seems to get us back to needing privileged numbers.

But if one adds causal finitism (the doctrine that only finite pluralities can together cause something) to the mix, we get a cool account of proof and consistency. Add the stipulation that the parts of a “written proof” need to have causal powers such that they are capable of together causing something (e.g., causing someone to understand the proof). Causal finitism then guarantees that any plurality of things that can work together to cause an effect is finite.

So, causal finitism together with the causal powers account of modality gives us a metaphysical account of consistency: axioms are consistent provided that it is not causally possible for someone to produce a written proof of a contradiction from them.

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